The Paris Men's Collections Celebrated Diversity, Modernity and the Transformative Powers of Fashion

A dispatch from the spring 2017 runways at Balenciaga, Rick Owens, Thom Browne and more.
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A look from the Balenciaga spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Balenciaga spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

Last Friday morning, on the second day of the Paris men's shows, news came out of London that the dreaded Brexit vote was successful. While the Brexit vote was against the unity of diverse nations, the spring 2017 season affirmed that the reason Paris is the center for men's fashion — from Balenciaga's menswear debut to Thom Browne's joyous island escapade complete with models dressed as birds of paradise and wearing shark masks — is thanks to the many different voices and visions offered on the runways.

A duality exists in today's menswear that marries a more formal approach to dressing (with French tailoring and craftsmanship) with a casual elegance and sportswear dominance. Throughout the week, designers negotiated this tension like fashion architects on how to create clothes for today's generation with increasing knowledge of fashion and discernible taste. In the first-ever Balenciaga men's show, Demna Gvasalia used the masterful tailoring techniques of the house founder's archives and personal wardrobe to design and create clothes around the man's body. That meant a range of boxy jackets and coats with large shoulders (some dropped forward) worn with slim shorts and high-heeled boots, as well as extreme slim-fitted, double-breasted windowpane suits and coats with large lapels and slightly flared short pants. Essentially a tailoring proposal, the extreme proportions from XXL to XXS demonstrated the notions of how clothes actually fit. The short, large shouldered jackets in red wine or blue or the nylon green cropped MA-1 bomber are sure bets at retail next spring.

A look from the Rick Owens spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Rick Owens spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

It is this same tailoring and draping methodology that Rick Owens is known for each season, with many looks resembling dresses rather than men's T-shirts and pants. Owens's irreverence for both trends and currency — in contrast with the industry's current fast pace and desire for instant gratification — make the designer the perennial creative leader in fashion. Creativity requires time and thinking. For example, Owens paired a sheer tank with intricate, multi-layered pants with front folded fabrics that swooped side to side as the model walked by in the concrete basement of the Palais de Tokyo.

A look from the Balmain spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Balmain spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

In a similar manner is Olivier Rousteing's approach to his Balmain, where his uncompromised aesthetic permeates the house. His signature heavy embroideries and beading took a back seat this season in favor of light blue washed denim jackets, chambray shirts and short and denim leggings that opened the show and shifted greater focus to softer, and more wearable garments that retained the designer's sense of style — like a belted denim jacket with gold buttons. However, embroideries are were forgotten altogether: it would not be Balmain without a variety of studded jackets. A sparkling silver metallic knit ensemble of a long cardigan, tunic and matching leggings and an orange belted jacket worn with flared dark orange pants broke the more commercially slanted looks in the high paced show. And don't forget those black leather and gold-plated gladiators and metallic tassel necklaces — they added the minimum sparkle to each look.

At Dior Homme, all the "streetwear" credos were omnipresent and polished perfectly with the craftsmanship of the Dior atelier. Red, punkish hand-stitching permeated the collection, weaving together the seams of tailored jackets, short cigarette pants and jeans and created patchworks of embroidered roses and skulls on black wool jackets; there were rocker mesh tanks and shrunken white jeans; and the large flared pants in grey wool harkened back to the late 90s hip-hop era. The rapper A$AP Rocky, who is the star of the house's fall ad campaign, sat in the front row to represent the brand's recent efforts at reaching out to a new audience and developing a new customer base. But as the models swerved around the Etienne Russo-designed set like skateboarders negotiating a tough curve, the show felt less emotionally connect to the "street" than the actual garments are to their creeds.

A look from the Givenchy spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Givenchy spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

In a slight change of direction from the espoused tailoring of the past two seasons, Riccardo Tisci retuned Givenchy to lead a majestic show of luxury sportswear. Multi-pocket add-ons — either with shoulder straps or zip away elements — to jackets and coats wiped away the formality of the constructed garments. These zippered patch pockets rendered even a double-breasted grey chalk stripe suit more sporty and casual. 

Perfect craftsmanship and summer fabrics in sulfur yellow linen and cotton blousons, cobalt blue shorts and sweaters, and mahogany lambskin cardigans lent a touch of lightness to the Hermès show — a prime example of luxury casual clothes. The tie-dye technique applied to the goatskin jacket was so subtle that it's hard to distinguish the lines around the faded circles. At Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones espoused the spirit of travel with nods to Africa (Kenya and Botswana in particular) into graphic patterned sweaters, as well as with exotic skins, like an alligator coat and ostrich biker.

A look from the Off-White spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Off-White spring 2017 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

Hood by Air, Sankuanz and Off-White added real streetwear ethos to the Paris shows. Shayne Oliver invited guests to a hammam sex club in Chatelet where they watched models walk by in white shirts with silver wrappings, black cropped short sleeved tops with waist belts, or long coats and tunics paired with cutout pants. Sankuanz designer Shangguan Zhe collaborated with artist Xu Zhen for a series of oversized military uniforms infused with hip-hop style in high-tech fabrics. Souvenir patches adorned a brown large suit, coats and an aviator jumpsuit as well. A detour from last season, when he attempted to do tailored coats and jackets, Virgil Abloh returned to his roots with transparent lettered tees worn with cotton jeans or shorts, decorated leather bombers and an oversized long red tunic sweater that will likely become the new Off-White staples.

But what is Paris without a lyrical show, one that meditates on what fashion really is? In a show that ended with a series of models (each with different hair sculptures in the form of a crown) circling around the square room wearing a variety of plastic coats, the last of which read "The King is Naked," Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons seemed to be asking the question of what are clothes and what is the relationship of clothes to the audience. Along the way, between covering and exposing the body, there were great pieces like colorful printed jackets and a pair of striped cotton shorts — all fit for any appearance a person chose.

And at the end of the five day week, we arrived at a depot on the outskirt of Paris to find a lone model in white face makeup, sunglasses and a grey stretch outfit sitting lonely leaning against a fake coconut tree inside a rectangle of enclosed black sand. An army of models marched out with their gray jumpsuits — only to undress into colorful yellow or light green floral jacquard jackets or white lacy short sleeved tops with red leather jackets underneath. They then undressed again into striped swimwear and brought out models dressed as surfboards or in white feathered bird suits. A model in a leather shark mask wearing a black long jacket with a leather fin in the back swam around the perimeters of the "island." Thom Browne had a fit ending for Paris in celebrating the transformative power of fashion and the accompanying joy fashion can exude.  

Together these voices chartered Paris men's spring season to new heights.